THE FALL OF PHIL COLLINS AS GREEK TRAGEDY

Fuck all if “In the
Air Tonight” doesn’t kick all kinds of ass: a meditation on Egg McMuffins and
the like.

 

By ROBERT DEAN LURIE

 

What’s it like to be a fallen god – to have once commanded
the heavens and the elements, only to now be at their mercy? To feel the
stinging contempt of the insects in your path, when once you were lord over
beast and man? In short, what’s it like to be Phil Collins?

 

            Okay.
Here’s where you laugh. Go ahead, have your fun. “One More Night”, “Easy
Lover”, “Another Day in Paradise”, “Groovy
Kind of Love”: budding serial killers cut their teeth on that shit.

 

            But really,
we shouldn’t be having this conversation. As the perpetrators of Crimes Against
Rock sweat out their final moments on death row (What would you like for your
last meal, Rod Stewart?), there he sits like royalty in exile, awaiting an
eleventh-hour pardon that will never come.

 

            An old
fable has been passed down from generation to generation to explain how this
all came to pass. It goes something like this:

 

 

       There once was a magical land called
Genesis, presided over by a wise philosopher-king named Gabriel. In his court
were three minstrels: Hackett, Rutherford, and Banks, and an impish jester
named Collins. In time, this jester-who, underneath his buffoonery, was really
quite wily-gained King Gabriel’s confidence and began whispering sweet nothings
into his ear: “There are many riches to be had outside the kingdom, my liege,
many fair maidens too. Do you wish to spend your days lording over familiar
faces and places, or exploring strange and exciting new lands?” Then he would
add, almost as an afterthought: “Anyway, you needn’t worry about your kingdom.
I shall look after it in your absence.”

       Eventually, the kind and trusting King
Gabriel gave in to these ministrations and sallied forth into the great
unknown. And he did indeed acquire great riches and have many adventures-all
the while doing his best to make the world a better place through numerous acts
of benevolence.

       Meanwhile, the Land of Genesis
fell into disarray. Disillusioned, Minstrel Hackett went into exile not long
after King Gabriel’s departure, while Rutherford
and Banks threw in their lot with the clown Collins. Together they plundered
their own citizenry for loot, demanding blind obedience and
tarring-and-feathering any heathen who dared pine for Good King Gabriel’s
return.

 

 

Fathers, in telling this tale to
their sons, would often conclude with the cryptic statement: “And that, my boy,
is how they started with Nursery Cryme and ended up with We Can’t Dance.”

 

            It’s an
enjoyable fable boasting an appealing cast of characters (chief among these the
noble leader and the Iago-style villain). Shame that it’s all a load of
bullshit.

 

            Mind you, I
bought into this storyline for many years. My first exposure to the mighty rock
group Genesis occurred at the tender age of thirteen. Our neighbor Mr. Istrie
owned an impressive record collection which included, among other things, the
first pressing of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side
of the Moon
(complete with fold-out poster!) and the uncut British version
of the Beatles’ Revolver. But what
really drew my attention was an album by Genesis called Nursery Cryme. The cover appeared to be a child’s painting of a
maid playing cricket…with decapitated heads. The music, in its incorporation of
both the familiar and the frightening, matched the image: Peter Gabriel’s voice
oscillating between soft whisper and rabid howl without warning, the tempo
often following suit. It scared the shit out of me and I loved it. This album
seemed not so much the product of a group of musicians but of five troubled
individuals locked away with their fairy tale books in a nuthouse.

 

            Alas, I
came to Genesis late, for Nursery Cryme was already an almost forgotten relic of the moldering past. The release of the
moment was the ubiquitous Invisible
Touch.
Hearing the two side by side, it became abundantly clear that
something was indeed rotten in the Kingdom
of Genesis. Which is not
to say that my thirteen-year-old self didn’t groove to “Land of Confusion”
and “In Too Deep”. But my thirteen-year-old self also enjoyed eating at
McDonald’s and watching Knight Rider.
(Full disclosure: I still get an Egg McMuffin from time to time).

 

            The lasting
impact of my time spent at Mr. Istrie’s was an appreciation for Peter Gabriel,
both within Genesis and on his own. Phil Collins, on the other hand, didn’t
warrant more than a passing thought in the ensuing years. Until…

 

            Fast-forward
to spring 2007, exactly twenty years after I discovered Nursery Cryme. Quite unbidden, the ghostly voice of Phil Collins
began to insinuate itself into my thoughts during a seemingly never-ending
drive across the New Mexico
desert. This business trip had begun promisingly enough. Armed with Talk Talk’s
post-rock classic Spirit of Eden, I
had soared across the spectacular Arizona/New Mexico border accompanied by Mark
Hollis’s heroin-addled tales of despair and redemption.

 

            Then the CD
started skipping.

 

            Over the
next few hours the landscape became flat and my choices on the radio dial
dwindled to a handful of Spanish-language stations and one lone hip-hop/R&B
outpost. I turned it off and resigned myself to spending the remainder of the
trip listening to the music of my mind. Then, somewhere past the Navajo
reservation that Tony Hillerman had made famous in his mystery novels, a soft
voice began its plaintive croon from the darkest recesses of my subconscious: “I can feel it coming in the air tonight, oh
Lord / And I’ve been waiting for this moment for all my life, oh Lord, oh
Lord.”

 

This was, of course, Phil’s ditty
about wanting to murder the interior decorator that ran off with his wife. Yes,
I know: it was also the soundtrack to a beer commercial as well as a Cadbury’s
Chocolate ad featuring a gorilla playing drums. That doesn’t change the fact
that the song is completely badass, and at that moment of mental vulnerability
it had wriggled its way into my soul. Try as I might to think of other things,
I kept returning to the eerie melody; and just as the beckoning tower of a
Wal-Mart appeared on the horizon, I recalled the part where Phil’s massive
drums come crashing into the track and his voice goes from ominous whisper to
shriek: “Oh Lord, oh Loooooooord!”  Was it
really as good as I remembered? How could I have forgotten that Phil Collins
had one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll screams, second only to John Lennon’s?

 

            The die was
cast. I pulled into the Wal-Mart parking lot and my life changed forever.

 

            Two CDs
were acquired on that trip: Phil Collins’s Face
Value
(which contained the aforementioned “In the Air Tonight” and yes, it
was as good as I remembered) and Genesis’ Turn
It On Again: The Hits
. Within the next four months I would own every
Genesis album released between 1974 and 1984, as well as Phil’s first two solo
albums. The conclusion I arrived at after assimilating all this music was that
anyone who denied the greatness of Phil Collins-era Genesis was in denial of
the evidence of their own ears. “Turn It On Again”; “Misunderstanding”; “Mama”;
“That’s All”; hell, even “Throwing It All Away” and “Tonight Tonight Tonight”:
These were monster hits boasting serious musical chops. And then there were the
many deep cuts that did not disappoint: “Scenes from a Night’s Dream”; “Many
Too Many”; “Ripples”; “Guide Vocal”; “Los Endos”. Also, this idea that Genesis
had immediately sold out the kingdom (i.e. become a pop band) after Phil took
over was proven patently false; all manner of prog looniness permeated the
1976-1980 material.

 

            Amongst
friends, I was a bit more strident with this new obsession than I had been with
past fixations. Since 1992, I had been a staunch partisan of the music of Daryl
Hall and John Oates, but I had always couched my praise of that duo in irony,
as if my peers might find straight-faced adulation too bewildering. Not so with
Genesis. Perhaps I thought I could piggyback off of the Gabriel era’s street
cred – indeed, I started off tentatively: “Of course the Gabriel material is
wonderful. No arguments there. But you know, that first album with Phil Collins
singing lead is really quite inventive” which soon led to “Hey, the stuff they
did before Steve Hackett left in 1977 is really outstanding.” From there it was
a slippery slope: “Boy, I just love Duke!
(1980)”; “Abacab (1982) is not that
bad”; “They were still a smokin’ live band in 1984!”

 

            Every
Genesis fan has a cutoff date – the “point of no return” after which Genesis
ceased to be a good band and may have even become a force for evil. Purists
will go back to Good King Gabriel’s departure in 1975. A vocal contingent marks
the Great Prog Abandonment of 1980 as the turnoff onto Suck Street. Be that as it may, there is
universal consensus that by the time Phil began sporting what one Amazon.com
reviewer termed his “business up front, wild out back” mullet in 1986, things
had well and truly gone to shit. The catchy singles from this period were
simply the flailing, desperate thrusts of a punch-drunk boxer seconds away from
hitting the mat.

 

            Yeah, I
know that the mid-‘80s was a prosperous era for the boys and that their
gargantuan success probably enabled the acquisition of yachts and luxury
properties in far-flung locales, but these were musicians and they knew the nature of the deal they had struck. At
that very same time, Peter Gabriel was having his cake and eating it too:
enjoying critical acclaim and commercial
success with his smash album So.
There’s a right way and a wrong way to go about this sort of thing.

 

            That being
said, it’s easy to forget – now that we’ve been saddled with “Another Day in Paradise” for so many years-that Phil Collins seemed the
unlikeliest of pop hitmakers back when “Face Value” dropped in 1980. Within
Genesis he had been an innovator, perpetually subverting the band’s very
English wall of pomp with jazz-inflected syncopated beats. He was a fan of both
King Crimson and Sly and the Family
Stone. Pushing the experimentation even further, he joined the improvisational
jazz-rock outfit Brand X in the late ‘70s, crafting music with them that was
wilder and more free-form than anything he’d done with Mssrs. Banks,
Rutherford, Hackett, and Gabriel. Taken in that context, Face Value (which was begun alongside the Brand X work) could be
seen as another experiment: an opportunity to deploy his drumming and vocal talents
into the hitherto unexplored genres of pop and R&B. And you know what? Face Value is a great album. For that
matter, so is the follow up: Hello, I
Must Be Going.

 

            And yet, even at that early
stage, troubling omens were already in place for any Cassandra to see. The
faces of band members had never graced the covers of Genesis records, but here
was Phil’s ugly mug staring out from the cover of Face Value, daring us to take him seriously. That almost worked
because of the title, but his face popped up again on Hello, this time in profile. 1984’s No Jacket Required revisited the frontal shot, throwing in sweat
and a sinister red glow (evidence that the Faustian pact was up for
repayment?).

 

            I wonder
what Phil was thinking during those days. Did he relish the fame and fortune,
or live in perpetual dread of the stinging lick of perdition’s flame? As it
turned out, there were really two falls of Phil Collins: the first when the
increasing mediocrity of his solo output infected and devoured Genesis; the
second when the public abandoned him after his movie Buster tanked. His solo album at the time – But Seriously – (featuring the Phil face on the cover at a 45
degree angle with hair follicles fully in retreat) eked out two hits but
generated very little enthusiasm. From that point forward, the decline was
swift and irreversible.

 

(What’s that, you say? No no no.
You can take your Tarzan: The Musical and shove it, junior).

 

            There’s
this thing called “Tainting the Memory”: the idea that a talented artist can
release material that stinks so thoroughly that the noxious fumes engulf and
all but destroy the earlier well-regarded work. That was absolutely the case
with Phil’s oeuvre by the late ‘80s. To survive the long siege that is side B
of But Seriously, one makes desperate
promises to one’s god: “I will never listen to this man’s music again. I will
dispose of the old records in a great conflagration. I will cancel my
subscription to the Genesis fanzine. Anything to avoid this torture. And
please, God, can you help me get my money back?”

 

            Back in
1980, people had marveled at “art-rock” drummer Phil Collins’s foray into
popular music. Just eight years later, the terms “art” and “Phil Collins” were
about as far apart as “soul” and “Barry Manilow”. Old Buster never recovered.
True, people still attended Genesis concerts-you can’t dismantle a
multi-million dollar franchise overnight, after all – but the attitude had
changed from “God, they’re good” to “If we’re lucky, maybe they’ll play some of
the old stuff and we can forget that that stumpy ass-clown jumping around up
there is Phil Collins.”

 

So there I was nearly two decades
after The Fall, mulling through the wreckage of a self-sabotaged career and
trying to make sense of it all. Phil had once lamented a lover’s “throwing it
all away” and then had proceeded to do just that. But try as I might, any
attempt to explain his actions came up short.

 

            An analogy
can be made to Rod Stewart’s career, but it only goes so far, for if you listen
closely to the old Faces material or the first couple of Rod’s solo records, it
becomes clear that the guy was always a knucklehead and a boor, propped up on
the shoulders of talented collaborators. Phil’s Face Value, on the other hand, with its demented version of the
Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows” and its dizzying forays into jazz, funk, and
soul, is his brainchild and is more inventive than a good number of Genesis
albums. No, as hard as it is to accept now, Phil was clearly a talented artist
who chose to dumb it down. He decided to give the people what they wanted, or
what he thought they wanted. And after his second solo record, there would be
no more attempts to challenge his audience or incorporate his own varied
musical tastes into his work. It was strictly business – in plodding 4/4 time
with thin synths and overbearing horns, targeted for the local supermarket
soundsystem. He had found the formula and had decided to milk it for all it was
worth. In a word, he sold out.

 

            Okay, so we
have now pinpointed the nature of the crime. The motive, however, remains
elusive. Did his family need money? Maybe the ex had hit him with a hefty
settlement after she ran off with that interior decorator. Maybe he thought the
world would slide into another Great Depression after the excesses of the ‘80s
and he wanted to front-load that Swiss bank account. Hell, maybe he was being
blackmailed the entire time by a strapping young male lover. Whatever it was,
Phil ain’t squawking – which leaves us with the greatest tragedy of all: a
pointless and seemingly willful self-immolation.

 

            And boy,
what a messy crime scene! He left crappy albums strewn about like so many
entrails after a Jack the Ripper rampage. Dance
into the Light,
anyone?

 

In the Year of My Revelation – 2007
– Genesis fans were treated to the spectacle of Phil Collins’s reanimated
corpse sitting behind a drum kit playing good music again. By calling the tour
“Turn It On Again”, Mike Rutherford and Tony Banks implicitly acknowledged the
Frankensteinean experiments they had been conducting on their pal. Would “It’s
Alive” have been more apt? Not exactly. It’s true that the boys had somehow
managed to dial Phil’s brain back to 1978 for a large portion of the show, but
every now and then the corpse began to buck, most egregiously during the band’s
disinterment of their craptacular 1991 hit “We Can’t Dance”. At those moments
Phil resembled not so much a resurrected man but the bald-headed ghost of the
literary character Wolf Larsen, going down with his accursed ship one more
time. What one ultimately takes away from the valiant 2007 endeavor, then, is
that Phil (or Phil’s shell) is capable of playing – and sometimes even
breathing new life into – classic material, but he has absolutely nothing
contemporary to say. When was the last time that Phil Collins wrote – or played
on – a piece of music that spoke to anyone? I’ll resemble Rip Van Winkle by the
time you get back to me on that one.

 

Ah Phil, you have hurt me so. The
world makes less sense after what you did. But fuck all if “In the Air Tonight”
doesn’t kick all kinds of ass.

 

Oh Lord.

 

One thought on “THE FALL OF PHIL COLLINS AS GREEK TRAGEDY

Leave a Reply